Ronald Reagan might lose the presidency yet win an Emmy.His acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on network television last night was masterfully modulated and dramatically delivered, and it built, as Variety might say, a solid socko finish.
You really can't miss with silent prayer. For one thing, it shuts everything up -- even Walter Cronkite.
"I'll confess that I've been a little afraid to suggest what I'm going to suggest," Reagan said with a nervous gulp and glistening eyes as he neared the end of his 44-minute prime-time speech. "I'm more afraid not to." Pause. "Can we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer?"
Certainly no one shouted "No."
And so Reagan, his eyes growing mistier, quickly surveyed the hall and then humbly bowed his head, and the only sound that could be heard was the roar of the air conditioning in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena. After about 15 spellbinding seconds, Reagan ended his speech with "God bless America," and a demonstration ensured.
He never made a movie with a better finish than that.
The speech was, as ABC's Ted Koppel astutely observed, delivered in "a style far more congenial to television than to a large gathering like this." Reagan did not thunder or bristle, even when attacking the Carter administration; he made no large gestures and kept his voice at its trained, sonorous sway.
Not for nothing did this guy hawk ranges and fridges for several years as the host of TV's "General Electric Theater." He was a portrait in living putty of studied sincerity and creamy-smooth salesmanship.
The result was a true television speech, marred only by the inappropriate interruption of mindless applause and blaring party horns from Republicans high on life, or something, in the hall. Reagan was moving rather than rousing, and although he has often deplored the so-called lowered expectations fostered by Jimmy Carter, his speaking style was carefully toned down to the mellowed contours of TV.
Great fuss was made over the previous night's speaker, keynoter Guy Vander Jagt, who is known as a great orator. Great orators are as suited to the age of television as are dolphins to a living-room aquarium. Appropriately, Reagan quoted at length Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first president to tailor his speaking style to the new intimacy of radio and its privileged place in the American home.
Much to the shock of network commentators, the convention was actually rolling along ahead of schedule by the time Reagan made his appearance. CBS was so taken aback that, said Walter Cronkite to viewers, "we interrupt a commercial -- maybe a first" to capture Reagan's arrival in the hall.
ABC missed it together, and NBC missed most of it. Obviously, Reagan was in a rush so that his speech would be placed as strategically as possible in the midst of prime viewing time.
Vice presidential candidate George Bush's acceptance speech was kept to a spartan six minutes, clearly in pursuit of the same goal, maximum exposure for Reagan.
In fact, when the cheering in the hall threatened to delay the start of his talk, Reagan said to the delegates, half jokingly at most, "You're using up prime time!"
And he began with the crack, "My first thrill tonight was to find myself, for the first time in a long time, in a movie in prime time." He was referring to a short biographical film that preceded his grand entrance. The film spoke glowingly of Reagan's labor credentials as a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, and the narrator said Reagan had single-handedly "prevented a takeover of the film industry by organized crime." How he managed to do this and also star opposite an ape in "Bedtime for Bonzo" was not explained.
A more than faintly religious tone is being maintained by the Reagan candidacy. He has spoken repeatedly of leading a "crusade," and beginning a crusade with prayer is not exactly unheard of in the old history books. At times, the convention resembled the new breed of evangelical talk shows carried on TV stations throughout the country, where the vacant grins of ceaselessly smiling hosts and guests are usually dead giveaways that up above the eyebrows, nobody's home.
At any rate, most speeches make terrible television. In the case of Teddy Kennedy, harangues harangued for large crowds and captured on news film have proven a handicap to the candidate in a day when about all that counts is what millions of Americans perceive on their little home screens. The only soapboxes that go over well there have Tide of All in them.
Reagan's speech was about as palatable and effective as a speech on television delivered in a huge hall before a demonstrative crowd can be. If anything, the banality of his imagery will help, not hurt, him with the television audience. His faded matinee idol looks lend what he says a certain poignance and human appeal. Jimmy Carter is no competition as a TV speechmaker. Whatever his merits as a candidate, should Reagan win the presidential race, the nation's viewers will at least be guaranteed more entertaining fireside chats than they've had from a dolorous Jimmy Carter. One long national daydream may be almost over.